Let’s call it the Cusack curse. Every time John Cusack ends up in a film scene where a musical piece is the focus, the artist performing the song suffers an irreparable artistic setback that permanently unhinges their career. Peter Gabriel’s never been the same since Cusack foisted that boombox over his head in Say Anything and played “In Your Eyes” for Ione Skye, and the Violent Femmes have hidden their deficiencies behind a myriad of re-releases of old albums after “Blister in the Sun (2000)” played a prominent role in Grosse Point Blank. The latest victims of this jinx are the members of the Scottish group the Beta Band. After receiving a sweet promo in the film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, where Cusack slides their classic single “Dry the Rain” onto the record player and then informs his Championship Vinyl co-workers Jack Black and Todd Louiso that this move alone will sell out their stock of the Beta’s Three EPs, one would have thought they were primed for world domination. The reception to their albums since High Fidelity has been warm but less than rabid as college radio, critics, and live music fans have followed the stoner art club trappings that provide the backdrop for their music with mild interest. The reality though is that the Beta Band has never quite returned to the zenith that was “Dry the Rain” and the Three EPs. Hanger-ons seem to be swarming around the band more for the hope that this potential will return to resuscitate their past glory rather than on any actualization of this in their music.
Their third proper full-length album, the literally titled, Heroes to Zeroes does little to dissuade us of the shortcomings that have plagued releases by the Beta Band since the release of High Fidelity. The band spent 18 months in a constant state of flux, between touring and studio work, to round out the songs for this album before heading back to the studio to put together the first self-produced album of their career. In a conscientious move to shed the stoner-folk label that has hung over them, the Beta Band sheds much of the acoustic instrumentation and found sound collages that made past recordings so pleasing. This album is long on riffing distorted guitars and glitch heavy electronics in a concerted effort to provide a more rock-focused and accessible album. The opener, and first single, “Assessment” is the one instance where this formula truly works. This is the sound of Oasis joining the Stone Roses to cover a track by the Beta Band. There is an anthemic dynamicism to the guitar interplay that is fused with the washes of dance-floor ready beats and electronics by the soulful vocals of lead singer Stephen Mason. The mix is also perfect as modern legend Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck, etc.) gathered together the production work of the Betas and merged it into a cohesive and classic single.
The problem is that this formula is employed regularly throughout the album and never again to such great results. “Space” ups the rhythmic quotient but the melody feels recycled from a past album, “Lion Thief” finds the missing melody but is marred by nonsensical lyrics and a break that could have been culled from a Stevie Nicks song, “Liquid Bird” makes the ears bleed with screeching guitar leads and heavy-handed electronics that sound like it was lifted from an Oasis B-side, and “Easy” leans heavily on a skronking funk guitar that recalls a poor man’s Innervisions-era Stevie Wonder.
The memorable tracks on this album rely on the melody and vocal harmonies of the Betas to pull the load. There is a definitive Brian Wilson influence on “Space Beatle” which is anchored by Mason’s vocals gathered out front of skittering electronics in the verse and glorious keyboards and doubled vocals in the choruses. “Simple” hits on all of the strengths of the Beta Band. Ringing guitars are syncopated with an interplay of machine-based and live drums, all playing second fiddle to the cool yet emotive vocals of Mason. The same dynamics make “Wonderful” an equally powerful track.
In an effort to achieve something greater with their new album Heroes to Zeroes, the Beta Band have reached out into traditional rock dynamics with mixed results. Part of what made this band so enjoyable was their ability to take an odd mix of field recordings and merge them with down tempo electronics, acoustic guitars and soaring vocal melodies. When they take this path, the Betas sound as vital as ever. The problem with Heroes to Zeroes is that the more rock oriented tracks tend to make this album a self-fulfilling prophecy.